The U.S.–France relationship is in meltdown over a recently canceled submarine deal that Australian officials had cast doubt on for months.
For the first time in the 240-year alliance, France has recalled its ambassador from Washington over the announcement of a nuclear-submarine deal involving the U.S., U.K., and Australia that displaced a different multibillion-dollar contract between the Australian government and a French company for 12 diesel submarines.
Infuriated, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the move a “stab in the back” on Wednesday when it was unveiled, and in a communiqué this afternoon announcing his decision to recall Paris’s envoys in Washington and Canberra warned that the new trilateral pact — called AUKUS — affects “the very conception we have of our alliances, our partnerships, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe.” Le Drian also ordered France’s ambassador to Australia to return home.
Paris is understandably upset by AUKUS’s handling of the 2016 contract, but that deal was already on the ropes. Politico EU noted the rampant cybersecurity risks, budget problems, and delays that plagued the project, leading Australian officials to cool on it:
Canberra signaled in June it was looking for a way out of the contract, signed in 2016 with French company DCNS (now known as Naval Group) to build 12 Barracuda submarines.
Questioned by a Senate committee about issues with the project, Australia’s Defense Secretary Greg Moriarty said: “It became clear to me we were having challenges … over the last 15 to 12 months.” He said his government had been considering its options, including what it could do if it was “unable to proceed” with the French deal.
Moriarty’s admission came after his government in April refused to sign a contract for the next phase of the French submarine project, giving Naval Group until this month to comply with its demands. There were reports dating back to the beginning of this year that Canberra was seeking to walk away.
More directly, however, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said today that he told President Emmanuel Macron in June that Australia might withdraw from the deal. “I made it very clear, we had a lengthy dinner there in Paris, about our very significant concerns about the capabilities of conventional submarines to deal with the new strategic environment we’re faced with,” he said during an interview with 5aa Radio.
Despite the angry French response, the United States, Australia, and all of its allies with an interest in deterring Chinese aggression stand to benefit if AUKUS is able to construct these nuclear submarines. Canberra traded up from a program plagued by delays and significant budget problems to a deal to construct subs far superior — “the gold standard,” Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson called them — and more capable of meeting its defense needs. Since 2016, Australia’s security situation has changed significantly, as China’s attempts to pressure the country to adopt a pro-Beijing line have grown more coercive.
Whatever the long-term consequences of this dispute and the merits of France’s rage, the 2016 contract was already a zombie deal. And AUKUS replaced it with something of greater value to Western democracies operating in the Indo-Pacific.